Last Monday was the college's Opening Day, an annual gathering where staff and faculty welcome each other back to the new semester and academic year. The president's message this fall focused on remediation and retention, and he highlighted certain facts about our student body. For example, of students who take placement tests upon entering the college, less than a quarter are able to do college-level math. Less than a quarter are able to write at a college level. And less than half are able to read at a college level.
For many staff and faculty these numbers were not surprising, and I imagine they are consistent with other community colleges nationally, but a week later I still find myself stunned. I understand that access to opportunities is part of the basic mission of a community college. We work with the underserved, the poor, minorities, non-English speakers, and people of all ages who may not have experienced high academic success in the past. However, I had previously not seen numbers such as these so starkly laid out.
The president suggested we treat the situation as a personal challenge: How can we help these students succeed? I am highly motivated to do good work, but I catch myself feeling helpless because I make many assumptions about students' abilities. For one, I have been assuming that the patrons I help at the reference desk can read. For another, we librarians try to make the library as easy to use and intuitive as possible, but what is easy to librarians with master's degrees may be very difficult for someone else.
Not to sound disheartened, but I wonder whether I am doing a good job as an educator if in the end all I can do is show students the path to success. When students are starting with such serious underlying educational disadvantages, is it enough to just show them the way? Giving everyone a chance comes naturally to me, but I struggle with the thought that that's the most I can do.